Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (2013)

by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a historical novel about a real woman, Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave whom Mary Todd Lincoln hired to sew her gowns and who became Mrs. Lincoln’s confidante and close friend. If you are interested in reading about Mary Lincoln, she is the focus here — although the portrait is not eye-opening. It adheres closely to the difficult, mercurial Mary Lincoln of other accounts. A difference perhaps is that it is sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln, understanding the intense strain on a woman who lost three children; was suspected of Confederate sympathies on account of her Kentucky roots; was shunned as a Western hick by Washington socialites; and incurred a mountain of debt by spending on White House restoration and on herself.

If your interest is more in Elizabeth Keckley, you may finish the book thinking she seems unreal. The facts of her life are there: a son fathered by her master, a broken marriage, buying freedom for herself and her son, her rise as a dressmaker to the elite, her soldier son’s death, employment by Mrs. Lincoln, naively writing a book that Mrs. Lincoln considered a betrayal. Chiaverini paints Keckley as pretty much flawless, however, and doesn’t get inside the character. This is more history than novel, and if you’re okay with that, you may enjoy it.


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